Wick Communications

Publish those salaries

In Ideas on August 20, 2010 at 8:32 am

One thing I’ve noticed since beginning The Kicker two years ago is that someone at Wick newspapers has generally already acted on my good ideas long before I decided they were good ideas. In other words, you guys don’t need me to tell you what to do.

Predictably, that is true when it comes to the good idea of publishing public salaries, something I mentioned last week.

More than one Wick paper does this regularly. Each September in Inside Tucson Business, editors publish a page listing the top 24 highest-paid government employees in town. “To gather this information, we first go to the Arizona League of Cities and Towns,” said Copper Team Leader Tom Lee in an e-mail. “We take that information and then verify it with local government agencies. Some states where we have Wick publications most likely have a League of Cities and Towns.”

The image you see with this post is one of three pages published recently in the Montrose Daily Press. It may look easy to do, but the devil is in the details and there are a lot of them. You have to verify e-mail and phone numbers, run down mug shots and, of course, find the salary info.

Discovery Team Leader David Lewis said he loves these stories because they are sure to be talked about around the watercooler. The reason is that humans seem to be compelled to compare their condition with that of their neighbors. Lewis calls these, “How’s your spouse? Compared to what?” stories. The key is the comparison…

“Our society is focused on whose grass is greener,” he said in an e-mail to me. He gave some good examples of comparisons we could all make for readers:

  • Number of acres of parks locally compared to the same data for similar cities;
  • Number of local tennis courts locally, again compared to the data for similar cities;
  • Teacher pay and benefits locally compared to others;
  • Cost of educating your kid, again compared to others…does your district hit you for school books (like Illinois?), for bus service (like California?). What are your gross taxes that go to local schools vs. other communities, etc.;
  • Government officials’ pay, duties, perks. (“One of my favorites was one that showed our city’s council members got free golf at muni courses, free swimming at rec center, many other hidden things,” David wrote.)

David makes a couple of other very good points.

  1. Be accurate. “I like giving a copy to the people who know of the comparison (school board, for teachers, as an example) and have them verify that the local info is correct. All of the effort goes down the drain when one fact is wrong,” he said.
  2. Have no agenda. Let the data speak for itself. “Let’s gather the data and write the story — instead of going in with the assumption that our teachers are under or overpaid, etc. Then you show the data in a readable chart and you write the story with comments from all sides,” David said.
  3. To reiterate, context is key. David thinks the next step to the Montrose approach would be to compare salaries to other similar communities and perhaps with other similar jobs within the community.

Here in Half Moon Bay, we’re sitting down with the city manager on Monday. We gave him a week or so to gather the info and he says he’ll have it for us then and be willing to answer questions. One thing about the Bell, Calif., situation – politicians and bureaucrats know there have been abuses and they shouldn’t be surprised by your questions.

If you do something like this, please let me know so I can showcase those efforts here.

Clay

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  1. Check out P. 1 of the Nogales International. We published a list of school administrators’ salaries. The story exposes how the district salary schedules have grown cumbersome and convoluted over the years as the board has adjusted and tweaked to accommodate individuals. Now it’s going to be a slow fix with district veterans grandfathered while newcomers will have to comply with any new schedules they may come up with after this spring.
    I am convinced that had we not brought it up to the superintendent, the matter would have continued as the “elephant in the room.”
    The sad thing is that inequities in the schedule create for bad blood and poor morale.

  2. This is great, Manuel. I particularly like how you framed the questions at the beginning of your story.

    http://www.nogalesinternational.com/articles/2010/08/20/news/doc4c6ea00330914590853914.txt

    I agree with you; the superintendent would have never gotten around to it. I hope you keep their feet to the fire and, if they make changes, remind readers that you buys brought it up first.

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